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THE NATION

Preparing for a Safe, and Sane, Fourth

Festivities: Security will be tight at gatherings, but Americans 'should celebrate heartily because we have freedom,' president says.

July 03, 2002|JOSH MEYER and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Tuesday that Americans should not let threats of terrorist attacks deter them from publicly gathering to celebrate Independence Day, as the nation's cities and towns geared up to provide heavy security for their holiday festivities.

During a visit to a Milwaukee church, Bush said Americans should "celebrate the fact that we're fortunate enough to be Americans" on the Fourth of July.

"They should celebrate heartily because we have freedom and we love freedom," Bush said. "And ... they should also know our government is doing everything [it] can to make the homeland secure."

Bush plans to spend the holiday Thursday at a low-key event in Ripley, W.Va., and then return to the White House to watch fireworks on the Mall, White House officials said.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there were no plans as of Tuesday to change the government's terrorism alert level, which is now at yellow, or mid-level on the five-color scale.

"It remains a time of celebration and vigilance," Fleischer said.

In the nation's capital, the FBI and other law enforcement authorities said they would be on heightened alert for the possibility of terrorist attacks, even though they have received no specific or corroborated threats. That was also the case in Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Seattle and other cities.

Also Tuesday, the State Department formally warned Americans living overseas to be even more vigilant, telling them to keep a low profile.

"The U.S. government continues to receive credible indications that extremist individuals are planning additional terrorist actions against U.S. interests," said the State Department's "Worldwide Caution" memo.

"Such actions may be imminent and include suicide operations," the memo said. "We have no further information on specific targets, timing or method of attack." As July 4 approached, U.S. officials said they were continuing to pick up vague, uncorroborated, but still threatening intelligence "chatter" about a possible attack within the United States as well.

A confidential warning from the FBI to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies said that although the bureau has no "specific or credible information" of a July 4 threat, "the political and cultural significance of this date warrants increased vigilance."

Millions of Americans are expected to congregate in open places to celebrate the first Independence Day since the attacks of Sept. 11, to watch parades and enjoy fireworks displays, concerts and other festivities.

As they do, thousands of FBI agents, local and state police and other authorities plan to circulate among them, watching for signs of potential trouble.

"People will be gathering to celebrate Independence Day, and the fact is that if a terrorist incident did occur, it could cause casualties because of the large numbers of people gathered in one place," said one FBI official in Washington.

"We'll have appropriate personnel in place should something occur," said a second FBI official, who also asked not to be identified. The FBI has directed all of its 56 field offices to submit their plans for canvassing major events in their areas, and the bureau is beefing up round-the-clock coverage at its Strategic Information and Operation Center in Washington. The White House situation room also will be fully staffed and on high alert, as will the embryonic U.S. homeland security network.

The capital, always considered a likely target of any terrorist strike, has been abuzz for weeks with talk of July 4 threats.

Authorities in Washington said that they were stepping up security to unprecedented levels at the gala fireworks celebration on the Mall--the nation's premiere July 4 event.

More than 2,000 officers from 16 different agencies--far more than in years past--will be on hand, and there will be numerous extra checkpoints and special double-fencing around the historic 300-acre area, officials said.

"We feel very prepared at this point," said Teresa Chambers, chief of U.S. Park Police. "As of now, it's all systems go."

A lot is riding on the event, Chambers acknowledged.

"This is our first post 9/11 July 4 celebration for Washington--what greater place to celebrate our independence and let the terrorists know that they missed the target?" she said. "There is no reason for anyone [planning to attend the event] to change his or her plans," Chambers added. "My family is going to be down there. This is where we want to celebrate this Fourth of July."

Donna Stubbs of Alexandria, Va., said she went to the fireworks celebration on the Mall last year. But this year, she and her husband are staying away.

"There's no way we're going to the Mall," Stubbs said. "I just don't want to be in harm's way with all this going on. Who knows what will happen?"

In Los Angeles, the FBI planned no special deployments, saying it was already on high alert.

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